Charenee Wade: Carrying Gil Scott-Heron’s blazing torch in to jazz

Talk about being ahead of the game. In 2013 jazz singer Charenee Wade recorded Offering, an album reimagining the politically-charged r&b of the late Gil Scott-Heron, whose defiant 1970s-80s anthems (such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised) are among hip hop’s precursors. Offering came three years before Trump was even a candidate, and yet here she was singing songs like Home Is Where the Hatred Is.

“The reality is that even though that person is president now,” she says on the telephone, conspicuously avoiding Trump’s name, “the elements that created the circumstances for that to happen were probably already in the country. It was going on during Gil Scott-Heron’s time, and never really stopped. So the relevance of this music has always been and always will be, until we actually address the issues of the birth of the country, and create real equality. But we have a hell of a lot of work to do.”

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Charenee Wade. Photo supplied.

The jazz and blues of African Americans predates US folk music’s political activism, and remains a potent force. “Even as early as 1928,” says Wade, “a lot of the women blues-singers, for example, spoke unapologetically about misogyny, and were feminists at a time when that was not at all popular. For me the music has always had elements of speaking up for social justice…

“But whether you are singing a love a song or a song to inspire the masses to go out and raise their voices, at the end of the day our job as musicians is to inspire people to feel a little bit freer than they felt before. You’re free to love in way that you have never felt before, you’re free to express your sadness over loss in a way that you never have felt before, or you’re free to say, ‘You have a right to vote, because your grandparents and ancestors fought for that right.'”

Producer Mark Ruffin invited Wade to sing on Offering because he wanted a woman’s perspective on Scott-Heron’s music (often co-written with Brian Jackson), and while the singer was familiar with some of it, there was much more to discover. “I spent over six months just absorbing and getting deeper into the library,” she says, “and the tunes that I just couldn’t get out of my head were the ones that I decided to play with, and see what I could create, arrangement-wise.”

Wade’s roundedness as a musician makes it unsurprising that two particular influences are Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan. Of the former she says, “She was an amazing story-teller. I got to see her just before she passed away, and I remember being in awe of the entire concert, because it felt like when she was singing she was speaking directly towards me. She had this ability to make everyone in the audience feel that way, like you were her best friend, and she was having this conversation with you.”

Subsequently Wade often found that her most empathetic collaborators were ex-Carter alumni, who understood they weren’t a backing-band, but participants in what Wade calls “a constant collective conversation” helping tell the story. “I think that was a profound legacy that she has left for us.”

With Vaughan she especially appreciates her playfulness and “beautiful, full, liquid, warm-chocolate-feeling voice. She used all her voice, exploring all its many timbres when she sang. She was the first vocalist that brought me into jazz music, when I was probably eight years old.”

Wade, who is performing the Offering material at the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival, is also an educator who considers it crucial “that the legacy of the masters of this music always lives on in the next generation”. Scott-Heron’s work is part of that.

Charenee Wade: Foundry 616, November 16-17.